The Lockdown and its Effects on the Natural Environment

7 October, 2020

Oh how fast the world can change. At the start of the COVID-19 crisis, Wuhan was the first place to lockdown, and then there was a huge domino effect. Italy, Spain, the Czech Republic, Japan, South Korea, and eventually the UK. In this state of pandemic and panic, we have all had to adjust, but, no one and nothing has made such an abrupt and dramatic change as the natural environment. With cars off the roads, cities grinding to a halt, and planes sat on runways inactive, the Earth has a chance to… breathe.

In this article, I am going to set out a timeline of sorts to try and pinpoint some key events and stages in this recovery. Each date also has a link providing further information.

23 January – Wuhan lockdown begins

Overnight, trains, planes, and buses come to a halt in the province of Hubei, China, as 11 million people are put under lockdown. As the epicentre of the COVID-19 outbreak, this is the first place to face these measures.

21 February – Northern Italian lockdown begins

The heavily polluted northern region of Italy is the first to face restrictions on movements as it begins the European centre of the coronavirus outbreak.

8 March – Italy lockdown begins

Italian Prime Minister Guiseppe Conte announces nationwide quarantine measures to try and stem the flow of cases.

11 March – The Hugo Observatory claims the lockdowns may “save more lives through pollution prevention than infection prevention”

The Hugo Observatory, a research centre committed to the study of interactions between environmental changes, human migration, and politics, makes a very bold claim about the environmental benefits that can occur from this global event.

14 March – Spain starts their lockdown

The second worst affected country in Europe at this point, Pedro Sanchez announces nationwide lockdown measures.

15 March – Deer in Nara, Japan, come down from the empty national park looking for their main source of food (tourist’s rice cracker snacks)

A lack of tourists confuses deer in Japan’s Nara region. Rather than forage for food, the deer come down to the city and roam the empty streets looking for people, and rice crackers to eat. The deer eventually fed on the grass of city parks and plants around major buildings.

18 March – Venice canals run clear as people begin to notice the environmental benefits of the quarantine

Less traffic on the world’s most romantic canals means that for the first time in years, locals are able to see the bottom. Air quality improves too, with fewer motorised vehicles active in the city.

22 March – Air pollution in Bergamo, the centre of Italy’s outbreak, was down 47% compared to the same time in 2019

The EEA releases astonishing figures from some of Europe’s major cities about the reductions in pollution. In Barcelona and Lisbon, air pollution dropped 40% due to the lockdowns, but the big winner was Madrid, whose air pollution went down a staggering 56% in just one week.

23 March – UK lockdown begins

Slightly late to the party, PM Boris Johnson announces a nationwide lockdown effective immediately.

23 March – Pollution information from Asia and Europe is released

The European Space Agency releases some incredible pollution information, which demonstrates the results of a low carbon economy. Some results include:

  • 30% less air pollution in parts of China
  • 40% less air pollution in Northern Italy
  • Read more

 25 March – Businesses forced to adapt

For decades we’ve been told that things cannot change because ‘they’ve always been done this way’, but in the space of 48 hours, businesses have enabled millions of employees to work from home. COVID-19 is dubbed ‘nature’s wake up call to complacent civilisation’.

If you want to work out how beneficial for the environment your new working from home setup is, use this excellent calculator.

25 March – UN claims that the coronavirus is a warning from nature

The UN environment chief refutes the point that this virus is a message from nature that it is being pushed to the limits. It is revealed that 75% of emerging diseases come from wildlife.

27 March – Air pollution drops suddenly in the UK

Huge drops in the UK’s air pollution in the 4 days since the lockdown started are noticed.

28 March – China and Vietnam ban the consumption of wild animals

With the outbreak of coronavirus being pinned on bats and pangolins, both China and Vietnam make the move to ban the consumption of wild (non-farmed) animals.

31 March – Mountain goats in Llandudno, Wales, come down on their own accord to look for signs of life

You can see some amazing pictures of these horned beauties here.

3 April – US lobbyists begin taking advantage of coronavirus for environmental regulation easing

Of course, some organisations are looking to capitalise on the global pandemic, namely US lobbyists who want environmental legislation to become more lenient in the economic fallout.

3 April – The Himalayas are visible in regions of India for the first time in 30 years due to air pollution drop

Photos go viral in India as the Himalayas become visible from cities that hadn’t seen them for over 30 years, due to the huge drop in air pollution and visibility as a result of people saying indoors.

8 April – Amsterdam announces their use of the Doughnut Model

Nations begin to plan their economic responses, with Amsterdam announcing plans to adopt the Doughnut Model, an economic idea that allows nations and cities to thrive in accordance with the planet.

8 April – Wuhan reopens

After 76 long days under lockdown, Wuhan, where the coronavirus is thought to have started, is lifted out of lockdown.

9 April – Bees and rare wildflowers benefiting from human lockdown

Plantlife, Europe’s biggest conservation charity for wild plants, announces that the lockdown is having positive effects on the numbers of bees and wildflowers.

17 April – Experts predict that global carbon emissions for 2020 might only drop 5%

Whilst this might look good initially (it’s certainly better than the sharp rise we were seeing in previous years), experts at Carnegie Mellon University feel that “it illustrates the scope and scale of the climate challenge, which is fundamentally changing the way we make and use energy and products”. This quote comes from Costa Samaras, a professor who studies climate and energy systems at Carnegie Mellon University, who is concerned that this 5% is not enough to meet the UN’s projection of 7.6% over the next decade.

Shutting the world down doesn’t appear to be drastic enough.

21 April – Milan announces an ambitious scheme to reduce car use after lockdown

Pre-COVID 19, Milan was one of the most polluted cities in southern Europe, but under the nationwide lockdown, traffic congestion has dropped by up to 75% and the air quality has improved as a result. Taking this into account, Milan aims to reallocate 22 miles over streets, turning them from roads into footpaths and cycling spaces.

22 April – Earth Day, with a twist

This year, the 50th annual Earth Day got the respect and appreciation that it deserves, with hundreds of millions of people on lockdown wishing they could go out and enjoy nature. In this age of extinction, where there is too much talk and not enough action, the severity of the coronavirus situation may truly put things into perspective. This article proposes the idea that the pandemic offers a ‘glimpse of an alternative future on Earth day 2020’.

27 April – World’s top scientists predict that future pandemics will be even worse

Scientists say that there’s only one species responsible for coronavirus, and the blame should not be placed on bats, pangolins, or other wildlife, but rather, humans. IPBES’s Dr Peter Daszak stated “Rampant deforestation, uncontrolled expansion of agriculture, intensive farming, mining and infrastructure development, as well as the exploitation of wild species have created a ‘perfect storm’ for the spillover of diseases.”

27 April – The hottest year since records began…

Global emissions are down due to the lockdown, the temperatures keep rising, warn meteorologists.

30 April – Pollution-related deaths down by estimated 11,000 in the UK and Europe

Sharp falls in road traffic and industrial emissions have also resulted in 1.3m fewer days of work absence, 6,000 fewer children developing asthma, 1,900 avoided emergency room visits and 600 fewer preterm births, according to the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air.

 Also on this day, fossil fuel demand was announced to have dropped by 10% globally.

 9 May – Spain comes out of lockdown

 11 May – France comes out of lockdown

 18 May – Italy comes out of lockdown

 19 May – Study indicates that recent carbon reductions could yield long term results

A study finds that daily global carbon emissions during the lockdown measures in early April fell by 17% and could lead to an annual carbon emissions decline of up to 7%.

On May 29th, National Geographic said the opposite…

 28 May – €750bn EU support package announced – Green Deal included

Calls for an EU Green Deal have been made for years and they seemed to be heard before the pandemic started. Many put those dreams on hold, but in May, the €750bn ‘Next Generation EU’ recovery package was announced, with a European Green Deal inside. Money will go to green projects, with around 25% allocated for climate change mitigation.

3 June – Could the Fossil Fuel Industry Collapse?

The value of fossil fuel reserves could plummet by two thirds, creating a £20 trillion collapse in the industry, essentially changing the world as we know it.

4 June – The European Council begins a strategy for the sustainable and digital recovery of the European transport sector

With Europe looking to come out of lockdown and try to find a path back to normality, the EC has been looking at strategies on how to improve transport, encourage investment, and reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

11 June – Post-lockdown carbon emissions in the UK bounce back quicker than expected

Busier roads, fear of using public transport, and a return to ‘normality’ after being cooped up for months are the culprits of the rapid bounce-back in carbon emissions. The stats are still positive though, with the January-June stats for 2020 being 8.6% lower than in 2019.

18 June – The International Energy Agency says $3tn is needed…

For governments around the world, a “once-in-a-lifetime” roadmap to sustainably rebuild their economies in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic would cost around $3tn and would introduce cost-effective measures to be implemented over the next 3 years.

This page offers a lot of interesting information on this topic.

July 1 – Covid-19 blamed for new food waste issue

Throughout the lockdown, with restaurants closed, hotels with empty beds, transport restricted and supply chains breaking down, a mountain of food waste has been growing and contributing to the greenhouse gas issue in the UK. Read more.

 July 4 – UK comes out of lockdown

With the lockdown now over in almost all of Europe, scientists and researchers can now begin getting back to their labs and beginning new inquests into many fields related to the lockdowns, as you will see from this point onwards.

July 6 – Zoonotic diseases (animal-to-human) receive more research funding due to Covid-19 and thus begin to shed a light on how vulnerable we are

As the human demand for animal protein rises, the question of what is edible becomes more prevalent. This is only one factor, as unsustainable agricultural practices and climate change are also linked.

 July 13 – Scientists discover a concrete link between air pollution exposure and Covid-19 fatalities

Certain air pollution types, such as PM2.5 reduce lung function and cause respiratory illness in cases of long-term exposure, meaning those in highly polluted areas are more likely to suffer the more serious effects of Covid-19.

 However, also on July 13, it was announced that offshore wind investment quadrupled to £35bn in the first half of 2020, giving a good indication that a future with cleaner energy could mean reduced air pollution.

 July 19 – Carbon savings are not enough

In the two weeks since coming out of lockdown, the short-term carbon savings made during the three and a half months in lockdown had already almost been wiped out. With people returning to work and trying to get on with life ‘as usual’ the carbon savings dropped in two weeks from 36% to 16%.

July 24 – Human vibrations on Earth dropped 50% during lockdown, a study finds

The Royal Observatory Belgium and Imperial College London found that the 2020 lockdown was the quietest period of seismic noise in recorded history.

August 6 – UN warns that cities are pivotal

The UN Environment Programme releases a guide and discussion about the green recovery, and how with 90% of Covid-19 cases happening in cities (where 55% of the global population lives) there have to be some big changes. They argue that any future pandemics and green recovery programmes will be fought in a city battleground, with the results spreading outwards. This is an interesting read.

August 7 – Coronavirus lockdowns just a ‘blip’ for global warming

Scientists have found that despite months of lockdown, the long-term global warming effects of staying indoors are close to zero. The only real way to avoid the 1.5 degree rise in global temperature is a global green recovery plan that acts hard and fast. We are in a make or break situation here.

August 17 – PPE is causing a new ocean plastics pollution pandemic

Masks, gloves, sanitizer bottles – these are the new turtle food, or so it seems as health and safety equipment ends up becoming a new factor in the ocean plastics disaster. The health of the seas also suffered massively during the lockdowns from the limited recycling programmes, with whole supply chains breaking down. The American Chemical Society found that 129 billion masks and 65 billion gloves are being used globally every month.

Some concluding thoughts…

What I want you to take away from this timeline is that

  • We’ve taken so much from the planet and in return it is suffering, a suffering that has been passed back on to us

  • A low carbon model can work

  • Remote work and WFH setups were easily adjusted to and should set the way for the future

  • Cleaner air is achievable

  • Global challenges don’t have national borders, we are all in the same boat

  • We are only as safe as the most vulnerable people in our society

  • If governments can respond to the threat of disease with scientific-based action, what is stopping them from doing the same for the climate?


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